Author: Chris Baynes
Italy has demanded that the UK takes in 141 refugees rescued by a humanitarian ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
Officials in Italy and Malta have refused to let the Aquarius dock after it picked up the people from overcrowded wooden boats adrift off the coast of Libya on Friday.
The charities SOS Mediterranee and Médecins Sans Frontières(MSF), which operate the rescue ship, have appealed for European governments to offer refuge to those on board.
Sixty-seven unaccompanied children are among the migrants, who are mostly from Somalia and Eritrea. Some are “extremely weak and malnourished”, MSF warned.
Italy’s new populist government has shut the country’s ports to all humanitarian boats, calling them a “taxi service” for illegal immigrants.
The Aquarius is now in international waters between Italy and Malta.
“It can go where it wants, not in Italy,” tweeted Rome’s far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini.
He suggested France, Germany, Britain or Malta as alternative destinations for the boat.
Malta’s rescue coordination centre told the Aquarius on Saturday that it would not welcome the ship, according to the boat’s online log.
Italian transport minister Danilo Toninelli, who oversees ports and the coast guard, said Britain should take in the refugees as the boat is registered in Gibraltar.
“At this point, the United Kingdom should assume its responsibility to safeguard the castaways,” he wrote on Twitter.
The Independent has contacted the UK Foreign Office for comment.
The European Commission has been speaking to several EU states as it looks to help resolve the deadlock, a spokesman in Brussels said.
“What is of utmost importance is that the survivors are brought to a place of safety without delay, where their basic needs can be met and where they can be protected from abuse,” said Nick Romaniuk, search and rescue coordinator at SOS Mediterranee.
“A rescue is not complete until there is disembarkation in a place of safety.”
Twenty-five of the migrants on board are believed to have been at sea for 35 hours when they were rescued from a small wooden boat with no engine.
Hours later, Aquarius spotted a second overcrowded wooden boat with 116 people onboard.
Many told charity workers they had been held in inhumane conditions in Libya.
The Aquarius spent nine days at sea with 630 migrants on board in June after it was turned away by Italy. It was later allowed to dock in Spain.
Most charity rescue vessels have stopped patrolling off the coast of Libya amid pressure from Italy and Malta.
“It seems the very principle of rendering assistance to persons in distress at sea is now at stake. Ships might be unwilling to respond to those in distress due to the high risk of being stranded and denied a place of safety,” said Aloys Vimard, MSF’s project coordinator onboard Aquarius.
Although the number of migrant boats setting off from the north African county has fallen dramatically this year, people smugglers are still pushing some boats out to sea.
According to Amnesty International, an estimated 720 people died in June and July when charity ships were mainly absent.
Italy has accused its partners of not sharing the burden of migrants who arrive on EU’s southern border, stoking tensions particularly with France, Malta and Germany.